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Sensory Processing and Autism
Temple Grandin is an author, spokesperson, professor, and advocate for autism research. She is also autistic. She has spent much of her adult life speaking about her experiences with autism and her specific sensory processing issues in an effort to bring about changes in how we view and work with autistic children and adults.
She states in an interview that, “One of my sensory problems was hearing sensitivity, where certain loud noises, such as a school bell, hurt my ears. It sounded like a dentist drill going through my ears.”
Her description of this one sensory sensitivity amazes me because in two sentences she is able to create a feeling and image that we can all relate to. Now, the school bell may not be something that ever bothered us, but we all know how terrible the dentist drill sounds.
If you have never listened to Temple Grandin speak or read one of her books, I highly suggest you do. She also has some YouTube videos about autism and her experiences.
Her experiences give us an insight into what life is like for someone who is autisitc. I’ll leave some links at the end of this post for more information.
Over the next two weeks I will talk about the sensory system, sensory processing issues, how this impacts children with autism’s ability to learn, and how we can help.
How Do Sensory Issues Occur?
We have to know what the sensory system is before we can determine where there might be a problem.
Do you remember the 5 basic senses you learned in school?
Hearing, vision, taste, touch, and smell.
Well, all day long information is coming in through these five senses and our brain has to process and organize all of this information.
What is it?
What does it mean?
Do I need to pay attention to it? Filter it out?
How do I respond to this information?
That’s a lot of work.
It’s a life long skill. We begin as infants and are still trying to function well in our daily routines as adults.
When things are going well, we can get through the day. We can do our job. We can drive. We can pick up the kids and get dinner ready. We can remember to pick up dessert for a party tomorrow.
But, did you know, there is actually a lot more information coming in than from just the basic 5 senses?
3 More Senses
I had only heard of the basic five senses before becoming a special ed teacher.
Luckily, I have been able to work with amazing occupational therapists, professors, and other teachers that have taught me about three additional senses and how they impact our ability to get through the day well.
The Vestibular System
The vestibular system is made up of several structures inside the inner ear. When our head moves in any direction, all of the fluid and tiny hairs within the inner ear structures tell us about our movement and position in space.
Are we right side up or upside down? Laying down?
Are we moving forward or backward?
Is something moving beside us or around us? How fast or slow?
How do we need to move our body to stay balanced and not fall?
We use vestibular stimulation for calming and arousing.
Does swinging or rocking back and forth calm you?
Did you rock or move your baby side to side to help her settle down?
That’s the vestibular system!
After you’ve been sitting all day, do you need to get up and move?
You’re feeling lethargic and need to wake up your vestibular system!
The Proprioceptive System
Can you feel yourself sitting on the chair?
Are you holding yourself upright while you’re sitting?
Can you feel your feet on the ground?
Information we get through our muscles and joints and bones is what makes up the proprioceptive system. Most of the time we are unaware of this information unless we have to actively think about it.
For instance, when you’re sitting on the floor and your child jumps on your back or crashes into you.
Your body adjusts to that change in weight and moves accordingly.
The proprioceptive system works well with the vestibular system.
Together they help us maintain our posture and balance.
We can plan out our movements. (How in the heck am I going to get up that jungle gym to get my kid out?)
All of the information from our muscles, joints, and bones is processed by our brain and helps us do all of these necessary movements.
Interoception, the final and newest part of our sensory system, is all of the sensations from our physiological and physical conditions.
Interoception isn’t new, but it is the newest piece of the sensory piece puzzle. It’s always been there, but it wasn’t fully understood until more recently.
This part of our sensory system gives our brain information regarding hunger, thirst, body temperature, respiration, elimination, and if we’re tired.
I don’t know about you, but this part of my sensory system is SUPER sensitive!
I am easily thrown off if I’m hungry, tired, thirsty, hot, cold, or have a headache. It’s really hard to get through the day!
Our brain processes this information, organizes it, and tells us how to respond or if we need to ignore it or respond to it later.
Sensory Processing: Putting It All Together
When it’s all working well, our brains receive information from our various senses, organize and interpret it (assign it meaning), and we respond appropriately.
It’s vital that our sensory system works well and stays regulated so we can learn and function. If our sensory system is easily disregulated, it’s very difficult to learn and do all of the things we need to do in a day.
Impact on Learning
For our youngest kids with autism, ADHD, and developmental delays, sensory processing can be difficult. Incoming information is often misinterpreted and disorganized which leads to our kids responding too much, not enough, or not correctly for that situation.
During early childhood, there is so much development going on: crawling, walking, talking, eating, playing with adults and kids, problem solving, starting preschool, etc.
Our kiddos can’t learn or eat new foods or play with others if they aren’t regulated.
It’s the foundation of all development!!
Did you have a super fussy baby who couldn’t nurse well or didn’t sleep well?
Is your toddler so thrown off by certain noises that you can’t go to the store or take them to the park?
Does your preschooler scream and tantrum every time a toy doesn’t work correctly and 20 minutes later, they still haven’t recovered?
Sensory processing isn’t something that’s understood well by many medical and educational professionals yet.
Sensory processing issues aren’t something that only happens to kids and adults with autism, ADHD, and other learning delays.
We all experience and process information differently.
As adults, we have learned to manage pretty well (most days), however, our young kids with autism, ADHD, and other developmental delays struggle with just getting through the day.
They haven’t had much time to learn and oftentimes the behaviors they use to handle situations are challenging (tantrums, aggression, screaming) or inappropriate for the situation (walking away, ignoring, avoiding other kids).
Want more information? Here I cover some misconceptions about sensory processing. You can also check out my post on practical strategies for common sensory issues.
Do you have any resources you’d like to tell me about? I’d love to hear about them!
Additional Sensory Processing Resources:
Raising a Sensory Smart Child by Lindsey Biel
Sensational Kids by Lucy Jane Miller
The Out-of-Sync Child by Carol Kranowitz
Temple Grandin’s Books
Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism
The Autistic Brain: Helping Different Kinds of Minds Succeed
Websites and Articles